It is common for archaeologists to find in the graveyards of African slaves in the Americas objects from their tortured lives. For the burial place became one of the few places where enslaved Africans could lay bare who they were and from whence they came.
The immediate wake of the death of Muhammad Ali reminds that he — the progeny of Dinah, his great-great grandmother who was a slave — must be, like his ancestors, so memorialized.
With the secret FBI memo of Feb. 13, 1964, to FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover, categorized as a "security matter," on the findings of a meeting between FBI agents and Ali's manager Angelo Dundee about Ali's connection to the Nation of Islam, or Black Muslims.
With the announcement from the World Boxing Association on Sept. 14, 1964, that it was defrocking him of the world heavyweight championship he’d won earlier that year against Sonny Liston because of his conversion to Islam, rejection of his given name Cassius Clay as, he said, a “slave name,” and openly taking counsel from the militant Malcolm X.
With the announcement from the New York State Athletic Commission and World Boxing Council on April 29, 1967, that both were stripping him of his restored world heavyweight champion’s belt for mustering the boldness that day to refuse conscription into the U.S. Army and saunter from the Houston Induction Center despite threat of a five-year prison sentence.
With the reams of defilement from media like the Los Angeles Times, which denounced “Clay as a black Benedict Arnold,” and elected officials like Frank Clark, a democratic congressman from Pennsylvania at the time who compared Ali’s decision “as surrendering to Adolf Hitler or Mussolini.”
Indeed, the Ali celebrated in the hours since his death late Friday — or, more broadly, since Parkinson’s increasingly muted his righteous audacity the past 20-plus years — is not the Ali I came to hoist. Ali was not to me the cuddle bear we’ve heard him portrayed as in demise and during that long physiologically addled state that preceeded. He was, instead, an unrelenting grizzly.
But this is what too often happens with transcendent radical black figures in our history. Their narratives are reconfigured, or disfigured, by accidental or purposeful image-makers to construct a radicalism that is digestible.
Indeed, Nelson Mandela has become lauded as some sort of avuncular family figure who reconciled in a post-apartheid South Africa rather than organize the armed wing of the African National Congress — Spear of the Nation (Umkhonto we Sizwe). It waged the successful revolution against South Africa’s all-white government that for so long denied with increasingly deadly tactics even basic human rights to the indigenous and majority black population of the country.
It’s all but forgotten that Jackie Robinson was a such a strident race man, as many civil rights activists were called in the first half of the last century, that he was court-martialed for refusing to surrender a bus seat under Jim Crow before he acceded to Major League Baseball’s plea that he always turn the other cheek.
And it soon may not be remembered that Harriet Tubman was an armed freedom fighter who led attacks for the Union Army against the Confederates in addition to extricating scores of slaves from southern bondage on the Underground Railroad. Her truth may wind up sanitized now that she has ascended to the face of a greenback, which, in a cruel twist of irony, was the very thing that made her and the other Africans she freed slaves.
I can’t pinpoint when the hijacking, or Disneyfication, of all of these biographies began, but I can with Ali’s. It happened shortly after it was revealed Parkinson’s struck him and it was accelerated when he teetered on that Atlanta stadium platform with the Olympic torch in hand to light ’96 Summer Games’ flame.
In Atlanta to cover the Games, I remember watching the NBC broadcast later as Bob Costas told the world that Ali didn’t lose his gold medal from the 1960 Rome Games in the dramatic manner that he told Richard Durham over 15 pages in “The Greatest: My Own Story.” In that autobiography, Ali said he unceremoniously chucked his medallion into the Ohio River in his home town, Louisville, after being denied service at a restaurant because of his color. “My holiday as White Hope was over,” Ali said. “I felt a new, secret strength.”
But Costas said Ali simply lost the medal and dismissed the tale as apocryphal.
Mark Durham, the son of Richard and a friend of mine, told me Costas’s account was ludicrous. Ali’s lifelong photographer Howard Bingham told me then that was the champ’s truth. Years later, former Washington Post writer David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, quoted author Toni Morrison, who edited “The Greatest.”
“The book was more accurate than not. As for the gold medal story, Ali came to deny it was true when the book came out.”
But there was no dismissing what Ali’s story, real or not, symbolized, as Costas went on to say, unless one wants to somehow defang his legacy by making him appear more pliant than defiant. Ali cast away three years, the prime of his career, for refusing to swallow his beliefs about the immorality of war in general and the Vietnam War in particular at a time when U.S. citizens overwhelmingly supported fighting communism in Asia. For that, he was stripped of his right to make a living in his chosen vocation. Ring magazine in 1967 declined to name a boxer of the year because Ali, the runaway candidate, was a verboten public figure. At least the Supreme Court vindicated his stance.
Most observers since Friday noted Ali’s singularity in our history. That isn’t the truth about him, either. He too was part of a lineage in sports of black athletes, not its seed. It picked up steam with athlete-turned-activist Paul Robeson and may have started with the first black man allowed to fight for the world heavyweight championship, Jack Johnson. Robeson and Johnson wound up exiled for their boldness in challenging societal norms as well.
But like Ali, they most importantly inspired and energized radical black activism here. The current Miles Davis biopic “Miles Ahead” reminds of his attraction to Johnson with his ’71 album “A Tribute to Jack Johnson,” in which Davis wrote in the liner notes: “The rise of Jack Johnson to world heavyweight supremacy in 1908 was a sign for white envy to erupt. Can you get to that? The day before Johnson defended the title against Jim Flynn (1912) he received a note: ‘Lie down tomorrow or we string you up — Ku Klux Klan.’ Dig that! Johnson portrayed Freedom — it rang just as loud as the bell proclaiming him Champion.”
Ali once saw a play about Jack Johnson, Bingham wrote in his book “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay v. The United States of America.”
“So that’s Jack Johnson,” Bingham quoted Ali’s reaction. “That was a bad [expletive]! This play is about me! Take out the interracial love stuff and Jack Johnson is the original me.”
It shouldn’t be so hard to tell.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for the Post.
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